Biography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Reliable information pertaining to the first half of Aphra Behn’s life is virtually nonexistent. The sparse biographical information for this period is, moreover, frequently contradictory. The earliest account of her career is to be found in the introduction to an edition of her fictional works that was published posthumously in 1696, which purports to be memoirs on her life written by a “gentlewoman” of her acquaintance. It is now believed that the “gentlewoman” in question was, in fact, Behn’s personal friend and editor Charles Gildon (1665-1724). According to his account, she was born into a good family by the name of Johnson, whose ancestral roots lay in the city of Canterbury in Kent. Her father, furthermore, was reported as being related to Lord Francis Willoughby of Parham, a man who used his good offices to secure Johnson an appointment to the administrative post of lieutenant-governor over many islands in the West Indies and the territory of Surinam. When Gildon’s memoirs were reprinted a year later in an anthology devoted to the lives of dramatic poets, the text was revised in such a way as to state explicitly that Behn was born in the city of Canterbury.
Information that runs counter to Gildon’s memoirs on two important issues, however, comes from the hand of another contemporary writer, Anne Finch. Finch, who is better known as the countess of Winchelsea, left a marginal note in a manuscript copy of some unpublished poems of...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
The details of Aphra Behn’s birth are not known. The parish register of the Sts. Gregory and Martin Church, Wye, England, contains an entry stating that Ayfara Amis, daughter of John and Amy Amis, was baptized on July 10, 1640. Apparently, John Johnson, related to Lord Francis Willoughby of Parham, adopted the girl, although no one seems to know exactly when. Ayfara Amis (some sources spell her first name as Aphara) accompanied her adoptive parents on a journey to Suriname (later Dutch Guiana) in 1658, Willoughby having appointed Johnson to serve as deputy governor of his extensive holdings there. Unfortunately, the new deputy died on the voyage; his widow and children proceeded to Suriname and took up residence at St. John’s, one of Lord Willoughby’s plantations. Exactly how long they remained is not clear, but certainly the details surrounding the time Behn spent at St. John’s form the background for Oroonoko.
Biographers have established the summer of 1663 as the most probable date of Behn’s return to England. By 1665, Behn was again in London and married to a wealthy merchant of Dutch extraction who may well have had connections in, or at least around, the court of Charles II. In 1665 came the Great Plague and the death of Behn’s husband; the latter proved the more disastrous for her, specifically because (again for unknown reasons) the Dutch merchant left nothing of substance to her—nothing, that is, except his court...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
Although the details surrounding the life of Aphra Behn have at least become stabilized, they have not always been clear. Her earliest biographer, the poet Charles Gildon (1665-1724), maintained that she was born at Canterbury, in Kent, the daughter of a man named Johnson. In 1884, however, Edmund Gosse discovered a marginal note in a manuscript belonging to the poet Anne Finch, countess of Winchelsea (1661-1720), revealing that Behn had been born at Wye, near Canterbury, the daughter of a barber—which John Johnson certainly was not. The countess’s note receives support from an entry in the parish register of the Saints Gregory and Martin Church, Wye, to the effect that Ayfara Amis, daughter of John and Amy Amis, was baptized there on July 10, 1640. Apparently Johnson, related to Lord Francis Willoughby of Parham, adopted the girl, although no one seems certain of the exact year. Nevertheless, Ayfara Amis accompanied her stepparents on a journey to Surinam (later Dutch Guiana) in 1658, Lord Willoughby having appointed Johnson to serve as deputy governor of his extensive holdings there. Unfortunately, the new deputy died on the voyage; his widow and children proceeded to Surinam and took up residence at St. John’s, one of Willoughby’s plantations. The exact length of their stay has yet to be determined; later biographers, though, have settled upon the summer of 1663 as the most probable date of return. The family’s tenure at St. John’s forms the background...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Concerning the family background and early life of Aphra Behn (bayn), virtually nothing is known with certainty. The sparse information that exists is usually contradictory. A parish register in the town of Wye shows that a baby named Aphara Amis was baptized in that town, in the county of Kent, England, on July 10, 1640. It is likely that she was born in the same year and in the same county, and Aphara Amis probably became Aphra Behn. While her literary works show that she was widely read, with a knowledge of several languages, nothing is known about her education. Early in life, she traveled to Surinam (modern Guyana), where she remained for a few months; the trip left an enduring impression and provided materials for her prose fiction and drama. She married a Dutch merchant engaged in business in London, a man who seems to have dropped out of her life by 1665. Scholars have suggested that he perished during the London plague of 1665.
In July, 1666, during the Anglo-Dutch War, she was sent to Antwerp, Belgium as an intelligence agent, a position she held until the end of December, 1666. Using the code name “Astrea,” she posted numerous letters to her superiors in London, providing information she had gleaned about Dutch intentions and pleading for more money to meet her mounting expenses. The letters suggest that, like many agents of King Charles II,...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Aphra Behn was the first woman in the history of English literature to earn her living as a writer. Behn’s plays reflect the exuberant spirit of Restoration drama and succeeded with audiences of her time; some were regularly performed into the eighteenth century. Her primary significance to literary history, however, lies in her prose fiction. She is an important figure in the transition from the prose romances of the Renaissance to the modern novel. Her narrative art assures her interest to literary historians, and her humanitarian themes endow her works with lasting relevance.
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Aphra Behn (bayn) has been called the first woman to support herself by her writing, yet her origins are so controversial and obscure that scholars are not even sure of her name. Some accounts claim that she was born Aphra or Aphara Amis, and one states that she was a barber’s daughter named Aphra Johnson. As a young woman she journeyed with her family to Suriname, where her father (or foster father) was to be the lieutenant-governor, but he died at sea. Apparently Aphra and her mother and brother stayed for several years in Suriname, where she met William Scot, the son of the regicide Thomas Scot. About 1658, she returned to England, married a Dutch merchant named Behn, and was soon left a destitute widow.
To support herself, Behn became a secret agent. She was sent to Antwerp by the British government to woo William Scot back to England with the promise of a pardon and to gather information for the government in their war against the Dutch. When she warned the British of the impending attack on London, she was ignored, humiliated, and dismissed unpaid. Because she had used her own money to live in Antwerp, she went into debt and ended up in a debtor’s prison.
Although she maintained herself by writing poetry and translating works from the French, Behn’s skill in drama first brought her monetary and literary success. Her first play,...
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IntroductionAphra Behn is often incorrectly celebrated as the “first female playwright.” Nuns Hrosvitha and Hildegarde, however, wrote religious closet dramas centuries before her, though their plays were not performed during their lifetimes. As a result, Behn’s career was far more influential, and she is credited with being one of the first women to earn a living writing for the theater. Her best-known play, The Rover, is a quintessential Restoration comedy of intrigue. Complete with masks, mistaken identities, and multiple, intersecting love stories, the play was the kind of raucous, bawdy entertainment that Restoration audiences loved. In fact, the play became so popular that Behn penned a sequel, but it was the original that made her a pioneer in theater history.
- Like Christopher Marlowe before her, Aphra Behn has often been suspected of being a spy for the Crown. Ostensibly working under Charles II, her code name was Astrea.
- Critics still argue whether or not Behn was a “feminist” writer. The Rover contains several attempted rapes—all played for laughs.
- Behn’s writing was not solely limited to drama. One of her most famous and successful works was Oroonoko, a novel about an African prince who becomes enslaved.
- Little is known about her husband, the mysterious Mr. Behn. Some believe that Aphra invented him and then “killed” him off because the social status of a widow was better than that of an unmarried woman.
- Renewed interest in Behn’s work has drawn greater attention to The Female Wits, a group of women writers contemporary to Behn.
Aphra Behn - Critical Survey of Drama
Aphra Behn Literary Criticism
Aphra Behn Poetry Criticism
Critical Survey of Poetry
Notable British Novelists
Oroonoko - Literary Characters
Oroonoko - Literary Criticism (1400-1800)
Oroonoko - Literary Places
The Forced Marriage - Literary Characters
Aphra Behn, a favorite of feminist literary critics, is considered to be the first woman to have made a living through her writing. There were other women writers before Behn, but few of them enjoyed financial success. Behn turned to her literary talent after the death of her husband, and she quickly proved her merit as well as her perseverance. Behn suffered from the biases of her time against women writers in general and women dramatists in particular. She was assumed by many of her contemporaries to be a prostitute because of her connection to the theater and because at the time, women who sold their writing were seen as selling themselves. In her prefaces, Behn sometimes commented on her unique status as a woman writer and asked to be taken seriously as a writer, with equal right to freedom in what she wrote. For example, in her preface to The Lucky Chance, or An Alderman's Bargain (1686), she wrote, ‘‘All I ask, is for the privilege for my masculine part, the poet in me...to tread in those successful paths my predecessors have long thrived in...If I must not, because of my sex, have this freedom, but that you will usurp all to yourselves, I [will] lay down my Quill and you shall hear no more of me.’’
Born in 1640 in Kent, England, Behn learned French and Dutch as she grew up. In 1663, she traveled with her family to Surinam, West Indies, where her father was to take an administrative post, but he died on the voyage there, and the family eventually returned. Young Behn kept a journal during her stay in Surinam, which she transformed into the novella Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave (1688). By the time she was twenty-six, she had lost her husband of three years, a Dutch merchant named Behn about whom little else is known. She briefly held a position as a spy in Antwerp for King Charles II during the war against the Dutch (1665-1667), but was not paid for her work and returned to London a pauper in the year following the Great Fire of 1666. Having unsuccessfully appealed to various friends for financial assistance, Behn served time in debtor's prison and, upon release, began her writing career. Her first play, The Forc'd Marriage, or The Jealous Bridegroom (1670), established her reputation, and she continued to produce enough substantial work each year to make a living. Despite this success, Behn's reputation suffered because of the topics she chose. Many of her eighteen extant plays portray various forms of prostitution, and some of her novels and poems contain frank eroticism that shocked early audiences. Being one of the earliest female playwrights, she was seen as someone who, like an actress, displayed herself to the public. Since actresses were viewed as—and some were—prostitutes, it was assumed by many that Behn was a prostitute, too.
Like her role model, William Shakespeare Behn often mined ideas from existing works and vastly improved upon them. She often complained that her works never attained the fame they deserved because they were ‘‘writ by a woman.’’ However, her achievement survived her, for by the nineteenth century Virginia Woolf would exclaim in A Room of One's Own that a woman could live the writer's life since, ‘‘Aphra Behn had done it!’’
Aphra Behn died in April of 1689. Engraved on her tombstone, perhaps at the request of her lover, John Hoyle, are the words, "Here lies a proof that wit can never be / Defence enough against mortality.’’ She is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Biography (Drama for Students)
Many of the facts about the early life of the dramatist, poet, and novelist Aphra Behn are matters of conjecture. It is likely that she was born in the village of Harbledown, near Canterbury, Kent, England in 1640, the second daughter of Bartholomew and Elizabeth Johnson. When Aphra was three, the family went to live in the West Indies. Her father died during the journey, but his wife and two children lived in Surinam, which was then a British colony. Behn returned to England in 1664 and married a Dutch merchant. Thereafter, she was known as Mrs. Behn, although the exact name of her husband is not known. Her husband died in 1665, which left Behn without any means of financial support. Out of necessity, the following year, Behn went to Antwerp in the Netherlands as a spy for King Charles II, gathering information about Dutch military and political activity. However, the English government made no use of the information she sent back and also failed to pay her. Behn had to borrow money to get back to England, and her financial problems continued. She was put in debtors’ prison in 1668 because of debts accumulated during her service to the king.
The circumstances surrounding Behn’s release from prison are unknown, but apparently she decided that from then on she would make her living as a writer. She appears to have had no desire to remarry or to otherwise depend upon a man. She had already been writing poetry, but she turned to drama, which offered more...
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